BHM: Marcus Books knowledge is power

Marcus Books is the oldest and still thriving bookstores dedicated to African American and black authors. It has been serving the Bay area for 50 years and has survived the gentrification of their neighborhood when so few other black owned businesses ever do. More important for African American herstory, Marcus Books was co-founded by Raye Richardson, along with her husband, and she continues to be committed to the store’s success. Currently, Marcus Books is run by her two daughters, Blanche Richardson and Karen Johnson who most store patrons credit as being the most knowledgeable people about black books they have ever met. Rounding out this matriarchy of black female booksellers/owners is Johnson’s daughter Tamiko who already helps out in the bookstore and will likely be in charge of it when her mother and aunt pass it on.

The store focuses on history and literature by and about African Americans from children’s literature to adult fiction and is named after black national Marcus Garvey. Both Richardson and her husband grew up in households heavily influenced by Garvey’s writing and Raye credits black nationalism as one of the reasons she had such a thirst for black books. As she grew up, she found herself lending her books out to all of her friends, who were also having a hard time finding or being exposed to new black books. The bookstore idea came from both the need to have ready access to books and to allow avid readers to retain their copies; you see, like me, when Richardson lent out her books, she almost never got them back because people loved them so much.

The bookstore marks a critical and long term intervention into the narrow publishing and stocking traditions of publishing houses and bookstores by refusing to ghettoize African American literary production. As one store patron put it:

” Years ago I grew tired of looking for books in the ‘African American Section’ of Borders or B[arnes] &N[oble] only to be inundated with trashy Black novels about a man who ain’t “no good” and the Sistah strong enought [sic] to love him.” – Jabir F

As many of us know, this and historical books about slavery are about all you can get on the shelves of mainstream bookstores. And if you want something on black women and empowerment or black women and feminism, you will neither find it in the WS section nor in the AFAm section unless it is a chapter in a book about [white women and] feminism in general or church women or a civil rights picture book respectively. Thus mainstream bookstores’ ordering policies work to erase a wide range of black intellectual thought and to perpetuate urban fantasies and the erasure of black women feminists and pro-woman movements.

Another patron explains his trouble in finding two popular biographies at the chain stores and how Marcus Books filled in the gap:

After much back and forth, I finally decided to purchase either Gifted Hands: The Ben Carson Story or The Pact for my ninth grade mentees.  So I hit my usual haunts Borders – “if we have it will be in the African-American section located on the second floor rear corner.” Bad sign.  Some 50 years post Rosa and we are still riding the back of the bus. “Most likely we don’t have it and can order it and have it in a couple of days.”

I call Stacey’s ask them about both books.  “I haven’t heard of The Pact and Gifted Hands is the that by Robbins?”

“The Pact, about 3 Newark doctors who made a pact to finish school, to become doctors, and to return to help the community.  Gifted Hands by and about Dr. Ben Carson, who escaped the mean streets of Detroit to become a gifted peds neurosurgeon.”

“Don’t have it, we can order it.”

“I need to find me an ethnic bookstore.”

“Good-bye.” Click.

One google search later, I find Marcus Books in Oakland.  “The Pact, about the doctors, they have another book coming out; we hope to have them back when they do their book tour.  Yes, we have two copies.  I don’t see that we have Gifted Hands in stock but I will call our San Francisco store…Yes, they have both books.”

Marcus Book Store I love you.  Like the big chain stores, Marcus has the technical, historical context books that white professionals like to read to understand the ways of black folk, but unlike the big chains and the “other local bookstores,” Marcus actually has general interest books, books about people, poetry, and every type of book by, about or for [black people that] you would find in Borders except [Borders only has these books about white people]. – Ralph C

This story is all too familiar to most of us. What is disconcerting about it is less that the books weren’t stocked, as we all should have expected that, but that these books were mainstream titles (meaning they were published by publishers these chains order from) and yet unknown to anyone working at the store. Worse, when mildly confronted about their absence, the response was not “we can order it” but to simply hand up on the potential buyer.

And while mainstream bookstores have failed to represent a wide range of black authors and historic and contemporary events, black bookstores have often had limited, aging, and male-centric selections that make them unappealing to the average browser and the discerning feminist reader. According to another book patron at Marcus books however, they have not fallen into this trap:

Aside from the late Karibu chain in DC/MD, in the past I’ve been disappointed by the offerings of black bookstores. But this place has a GREAT selection, even of hard to find books (I needed an older Percival Everett joint for a last minute gift, and couldn’t find it ANYWHERE except Marcus Books).  They had everything i wanted, some things I didn’t know I wanted (like Zora Neale Hurston’s writeup of her ethnographic work on voodoo), and offered to order anything I couldn’t find. – Jakeya C

And while many of the guest speakers at Marcus Books have been male authors and intellectuals, they also have a thriving number of up and coming and established female authors who have spoken or had book readings at the store.

I’ve seen Nikki Giovanni and Octavia Butler read here, to a room full of people of color, mostly Black folks. Need I say more? – Rona F

Marcus Books is also implicated in a larger narrative of African American history in the Bay area. During the 1950s, the bookstore shared the building with Jimbo’s Bop City, a famous Jazz club. Artists such as John Coltrane, Billie Holiday, Charlie Parker and Art Tatum would stop by the store before late night jam sessions. They also featured talks by Elison (a classmate of Richardson’s husband), Baldwin, and Malcom X as well as contemporary movers and shakers in the black literary scene like Angelou and Morrison. The bookstore also embraces contemporary fiction, including urban fiction which they see as potentially an observation on the plight of working class and subsistence level black youth in a setting that both booksellers and readers can easily identify (way to make something subversive, no?), and the authors writing it.

While Marcus Books is small, housing only 6000 volumes, it also manages to keep several of the most high demand books in stock and on the shelves according to patrons. This is extremely important to readers of black literature because Marcus Books circumvents the unfair tax mainstream stores’ “we can order it” places on their customers. By unfair tax, I mean not only potentially monetary cost but also emotional tax, ie:

  1. unlike white readers or readers looking for books by/for/about white people, black readers and ppl with interest in black books have to wait 5-14 business days to get a book they are interested in reading
  2. if the person is unable to return to the store to pick up their books or chooses to buy online out of frustration, they have to pay shipping and handling when mainstream white readers do not
  3. readers of black books almost always have to ask for help in the hopes of finding a book and as a result run the risk of being hung up on or the in person equivalent like the story quoted above
  4. even when they are not hung up on these book searches often include the tiring task of having to explain repeatedly what the book is and what it is about, even when the book is a popular paperback, which reinforces the idea that black literature and black lives are less important
  5. while mainstream white readers can spend hours roaming the stacks of any mainstream bookstore only to stumble upon a book they have never heard of but soon becomes their favorite, readers of black books have 1 small shelf to look through meaning they will likely never be exposed to the wide array of black books available to them in a bookstore

The last of the above list is critical for two reasons:

  1. the ongoing lack of exposure to a wide array of black books for patrons of bookstores (regardless of their interests)
  2. the reinforcing failure to buy a substantial number of black books b/c no one knows about them that the publishers and bookstores use for neither publishing nor stocking black books

The availability of inventory at Marcus books has not only been helpful to regular readers but also to academics. Several of the patrons attesting to the import of Marcus books were students or teachers/professors all of whom claimed Marcus Books has been invaluable to their own reading and their teaching. As one graduate student put it:

Marcus is responsible for more than half of my cherished book collection. – Jamila N

And one principal credits the bookstore with ensuring her school had a diverse lending library and curriculum for its diverse students.

For me, growing up in areas where black owned bookstores have been tiny, ratty, hovels with only a handful of ancient books and where the feminist bookstore is just as guilty of failing to stock a wide range of black women’s literature and theory as the mainstream stores, Marcus Books is an inspiration on how to get independent bookstores and black lit right. I wish anyone running a bookstore, but especially an independent feminist one, would have the opportunity to sit down with these three generations of women with 50 years of black owned bookstore knowledge behind them and ask how they can better represent black women’s intellectual production and black books in general.

Recently the store launched an online community to help customers and people outside of the Bay area stay connected (see link at top of page) as well as twitter @marcusbooks.

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